Walking down West Michigan Street in Duluth on a Friday evening, there’s a buzz in the air around Bent Paddle Brewing Company. The place is packed.
At the front of the taproom is a makeshift stage with a brightly colored mural. A band, Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, plays its first set of Americana music as a group of young children runs around them. It’s sometimes hard to hear the music over the chatter of the crowd, but nights like this are becoming a more familiar weekend scene in Duluth.
In the past six years, there has been a boom of breweries and cideries opening up in the city. Seven new taprooms have sprung up in that time, and as the numbers have grown, so has the local music scene.
Outside traditional music halls and theaters, people looking for live music in Duluth could typically find it at restaurants and bars like Pizza Luce, Rex’s Bar, Sir Benedict’s Tavern on the Lake and what’s now Wussow’s Concert Cafe. But as more breweries and cideries have opened their own taprooms in town, they’ve also added more spaces for musicians to play — and musicians say they’ve increased the number of shows happening in Duluth each week.
“Where there’s people who want to hear music, we’ll come and play,” said Teague Alexy, who plays guitar and sings for Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank. “The combination of microbrews and local music and local beer seems natural up here.”
For many of these businesses, having local music is a chance to support the local music scene and promote artists in their community, but it also helps to promote the beer or cider they’re selling. For Bent Paddle, that means booking musicians who fit the vibe of the taproom.
“It was never about being a venue, per se, for music, [but] more so a place where artists can express themselves,” said Pepin Young, who manages the taproom at Bent Paddle. “As we’ve grown as a brewery and our taproom has grown, we’ve been reached out to by more musicians and we find more opportunities to include musicians to our daily life here in the brewery.”
Just a few blocks away at Duluth Cider, the music and the cider get equal billing. Some nights, owner Jake Scott said, it’s a cidery with music and other nights it’s a music venue with cider. Either way, he said, it’s important to him to make music a priority.
“From the outset, we knew that we wanted to have our taproom set up to have live music,” Scott said. “We didn’t know exactly what it would look like until we found the space ... but as soon as we saw this room, we’re like, ‘Well, we're going to build a stage and we’re going to be intentional so that we can host the music here.’”
Duluth Cider has been around for less than a year, but it’s already gained a reputation in town as a place to see bands. Music at the taproom ranges from standing-room-only ticketed concerts to more casual, smaller shows that enhance the atmosphere in the room each week. Scott said the cidery wants to continue supporting both types of live music as the business grows.
That’s part of the role taprooms, relative newcomers to the scene here, are playing in the already robust music landscape of Duluth, said Melissa LaTour. She’s been heavily involved in the local music scene as director of the city’s Homegrown Music Festival, a popular celebration of Duluth-based music.
She said she sees these newer venues as additive, not part of a zero-sum equation. They’re opening up new opportunities for bands to play — and make money — but they’re also introducing the casual listener to local musicians.
“You do have that crowd that comes in specifically for beer ,” LaTour said. For those customers, the music is simply part of the ambiance. But sometimes, she said, the music connects with them.
“If you watch some of them, they begin to see the music and hear it and they’re more curious,” she said, which could lead them to seek out the band — or more live music — in the future.
Jason Wussow owns Wussow’s Concert Cafe, a 20-year-old coffee shop in West Duluth. A musician himself, he’s played at some of the breweries in town and said he sees the value in having music there. But he said he still believes it’s important to have spaces like Wussow’s, where the audience specifically seeks out the music.
“It brings out people who are here for the show. It’s not an afterthought, it’s not a texture, it’s the event,” Wussow said.
Jacob Mahon, a musician who leads Jacob Mahon and the Salty Dogs and regularly plays at Wussow’s, agreed. He said it’s still important to have spaces like Wussow’s and Blush downtown, where the music is the focus.
Although he’s played shows at some of the taprooms in the city — they’re a way to keep steady, paying gigs on his calendar — he said Duluth’s music scene wouldn’t be complete without places where customers come to focus on the music.
“If we didn’t have that place to build an actual audience that doesn’t just come for pizza or beer, that might be problematic,” Mahon said. “But it’s nice to have an outlet, financially, as a musician where you can keep playing music and get paid for it even if it’s not the most fun venue.”
Paul Lundgren has been following the local music scene in Duluth for more than 20 years, and runs Perfect Duluth Day, a website that covers local music and culture in the city. He said gigs at breweries and cideries have been a good way for many musicians to gain exposure and earn a steady paycheck, but acknowledged that not every musician in town benefits from their addition to the scene.
“There are other bands that just can’t get that gig because they’re not the style of music that works in that venue,” Lundgren said. But even those bands whose music doesn’t quite fit the vibe of the places that have opened in town, he said, don’t exactly lose out.
“People going to breweries from 5 to 7 to see somebody else isn’t taking away from you,” he said.
That holds true back at Bent Paddle, as the chatter gets softer and the children settle down.
“There’s just no better way to wind down on an evening after work than to catch some live music and hear what other people are throwing out there,” said Dusty Keliin, who’s visiting the taproom from across the bridge in Superior, Wis. “They’re throwing their lives out there for other people to listen to, or not listen to as background music.”
And slowly, as the night wears on, and more people around the room turn their attention to what’s happening on the stage, it’s the music that becomes the focus.